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Learning Kashmir History in an Open University

It was the other day, when heavy rainfall had turned the sluggish Jhelum into a raging torrent; I was one amongst a hundred and odd people who had waded their way to sparkling white hall of a local hotel. The occasion was release of a book on chief minister, Omar Abdullah by a young journalist Arjmand Hussein Talib. Sitting in the hall, waiting for the VIP to unwrap the book on a scion of Abdullah family, I was reminded of learning my first lessons on Kashmir politics.

I don’t think, in my school days I have read any book on Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. There was no book on him in our school library. There was no book on the shelves of bookseller in our mohalla. I remember there was a book in our school library titled ‘Khalid- through my eyes’ on “Khald-i-Kashmir” Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad the then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. The name of the author of the book has etherized from my mind. Perhaps it had been written by some Pandit School headmaster. I don’t remember that if any student borrowed this book from the school library- those days most of the boys were interested in reading novels on Islamic history. It was much later that I found in the attic our house in a pile of booklets on Sufiyna music a twenty four page booklet, Sheikh Abdullah, His Life and Times written by communist couple ideologue of the National Conference B.P.L. Bedi and Freda Bedi.

I don’t remember if there was any major work on Sheikh Abdullah in our childhood. But for his role in 1947 and then his desperate bids to retrace his step he did emerges as a controversial and equally dominating cult figure from the pages of most of the books written on Kashmir dispute during fifties. Some of those books continue to be most quoted works even today.

Honestly, I did not read any book on him during my school days but learnt lot more about him and his politics in my best political school- the shop fronts. My best tutors in contemporary Kashmir history were not the historians who believe that by blending selected extracts from two books they can produce another one but a darner, a tailor, a barber, a copper smith and a cobbler- who had been close witness to an era.

Sitting on shop front with Kangri tucked under flannel pheran was my best past time. Three shops were my regular haunts, one, of a darner who used to repair old woolen Kashmiri blankets known as Chadar in our langauge, second, of a coppersmith and third, of a barber. I remember those days the discussion on these shop fronts would revolve around three political leaders, Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, President of Pakistan, Field Marshall, Ayub Khan and imprisoned Kashmir leader Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. I don’t remember except one shop keeper- who was a know communists anyone on these shop fronts having any good word for Nehru. Ironically, Ayub Khan was a people’s darling in Kashmir and Sheikh Abdullah a hero.

Besides, the shop fronts that I still believe were in my childhood very powerful political school it was the Azad Kashmir Radio with its highest listenership those days that worked more than a tutor in politics for majority of the people in the state. It was this radio that contributed a lot to the popularity of Sheikh Abdullah and an aura of valor around him.

I learnt many a revealing lessons on the shop fronts that are yet to find a place in our contemporary history. The coppersmith enjoying smoke from hubble-bubble on the darner shops would often blame Sheikh for having gone against the tide and betrayed the wishes and aspiration of the people. The two often entered into hot arguments on this question. The darner would then snatch the pipe from his lips and start smoking with deep breaths – then begin his story. I still remember his version of the story that our “trained historiographers” are perhaps yet to record:

‘Sheikh Sahib he would say did not support accession with India. The issue of accession with India is being confused. Sheikh Sahib had been sentenced to six years rigorous imprisonment for starting quit Kashmir movement and raising slogans against the Amritsar Sale deed. He was incarcerated at Bhadrwah jail. And the issue of accession in accordance with Indian Independence act was to be decided by the rulers of those states not political parties. So Sheikh Sahib had no direct role in accession of the State with India.’ The coppersmith had his own takes on it and would endeavor to pin down the darner with his own version of the story- equally very strong.

The darner often pounced back with the argument, ‘How could he have supported blanket accession when he was battling against Amritsar sale deed that dwarfed this nation that had never accepted an alien rule.’ He would often end up Sheikh Abdullah was out an out a Kashmir- then they would disperse.

Many times, I am amazed at the political astuteness of the illiterate common folks of my birth place. Without having visited the temples of learning, they were the statesmen unto themselves. I remember, there were many a cobbler shop at the main crossing of my locality- they had not visited any universities nor had obtained doctorates but many of them looked more leaned than many that veteran Kashmir journalist known for his wit late Shameem Ahmed Shameem called as “M.A. Passed”.

I remember one of them was known for being a spiritual person; his shop often remained filled to capacity with disciples.

I remember, one day while getting my school shoe mended from cobbler Habib Sheikh I learnt yet another lesson on contemporary history. Habib Sheikh like many others in my locality was a political agile supporter of Sheikh Abdullah. Narrating stories how attempts were made to change demography of Kashmir in 1947 he had himself seen the volunteers of Hindu communalists like Arya Samaji and RSS being brought into Srinagar by Maharaja and how these people were training volunteers from minority community in arms in DAV School, Shetal Nath, Zaina Kadal and many other schools run by minority organization.’ And it was years later the story of Habib Sheikh was corroborated in an interview with me by yet important scion of the Abdullah family Sheikh Nazir Ahmed but yet to be recorded and researched by our “historians”-

I wish my memory supports me in retelling many other lessons that I learnt not from books but on the shop fronts in my part of the city- they call downtown and I remember as a cradle of learning an d incubator of valor.


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